Transgender anti-discrimination bill becomes tough sell for centrist Dems

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership are pushing legislation, written by Rep. Barney Frank, that would made it illegal for employers to discriminate against transgendered people.

The bill scares centrist Democrats, who don't want to be forced to vote on a hot-button issue popular on the left as they approach November congressional elections in which heavy Democratic losses are expected.

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Gay rights groups are pushing for a House vote this month, and the legislation from Frank, who is gay and hired the first openly transgendered aide on Capitol Hill, would broaden the reach of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The 2007 version, which won support from some centrists, prohibited hiring on the grounds of sexual orientation but not gender identity; it passed the House easily, 235-184, with 35 Republican votes.

Backers of the transgender provision are hoping that larger Democratic majorities in Congress and the public support from the Obama administration will lead to passage of the bill, but the sensitivity of the issue threatens to exacerbate an already challenging election year environment for Democrats. Bringing it to the floor in the next several weeks could also buck Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pledge to save vulnerable members from tough votes following the bruising healthcare debate.

The issue is a high priority among gay people, who criticize the Obama administration for not implementing key tenets of the gay rights agenda quickly enough. Advocates have been particularly irked by delays in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy”; military veterans supporting repeal are planning a rally on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The Democratic whip’s office has circulated an e-mail asking members if they’d support a version of the non-discrimination act that includes the transgender protection and if they’d oppose an anticipated motion to recommit that would water down or strike that provision.

Already, some Republican members who voted for the 2007 measure are saying they would not support the broader bill this year.

“It’s going to make it a lot more difficult for me to support it,” Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) told The Hill. “It’s a very touchy issue to most Americans.”

In an effort to build momentum for the current legislation, 202 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors to the version that includes transgender protection. But that list does not include dozens of members who supported the 2007 bill, many of them Democrats facing uphill re-election battles.

Those Democrats were loath to discuss the transgender issue this week. Several did not respond to queries about their position, while others said they were undecided.

“I don’t have anything to say on that,” replied Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who voted for the 2007 version but has not signed on to the current bill.

“I’m still considering all of that,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), another supporter of the legislation in 2007.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) said she was also undecided on the bill.

All three of the lawmakers face challenging re-election prospects this fall.

Frank (D-Mass.) said Democratic leaders were still working on getting the votes for the bill and that he was “optimistic” that it would pass.

Despite the uncertainty among centrist Democrats, gay rights groups voiced confidence that the measure would gain the required support by the time it reached the House floor.

“We think we’re closing the gap, and members are starting to understand the importance” of the transgender language, said Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. She said the potential loss of votes over the transgender issue from Republicans and Democrats who supported the 2007 bill could be offset by lawmakers who entered the House since that vote was taken. “It kind of cancels each other out,” Herwitt said.

The executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Mara Keisling, scoffed at the suggestion that gender identity was too controversial an issue for lawmakers to support during an election year. “There’s always members of Congress who are going to want to avoid the slightest bit of controversy,” she said. “This is not healthcare reform. This is not medical marijuana.”

“Nobody is going to lose [their seat] because of this vote,” Keisling said. When Pelosi promised not to subject her members to difficult votes after healthcare, Keisling said, “she was not meaning ENDA.”

Even if the legislation passes the House, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

A companion bill was introduced in August 2009 by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). It was one of the last pieces of legislation to carry the name of the late Massachusetts senator, who died a few weeks later. While Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the HELP committee, has said he would try to move the bill this year if approved by the House, advocates say they have yet to receive a firm commitment from the leadership.

The Senate never acted on the non-discrimination act that passed the House in 2007. It would have faced an almost certain veto by President George W. Bush.